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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What’s the Matter with Appalachia?

posted by on May 14 at 12:31 PM

As Josh noted earlier today, something very odd happened: While Obama suffered an absolutely brutal loss in West Virginia last night, the Democrats went on to win a congressional seat in rural Mississippi that has been in Republican hands since 1994—and more specifically, a seat where the Republicans used the specter of Obama and his mad, America-hating pastor to try to drag down the Democratic candidate.

When combined with Obama’s win in Nebraska last night (a contest that’s a mirror image of Washington’s system, wherein the caucus is king and the primary is a beauty contest), it kind of raises a question:

What’s so different between rural, white America in West Virginia and the same rural white voters in Nebraska and Mississippi?

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo attempts to explain the historical context of Appalachian politics, and why the first black president will probably never be a popular concept there. I’m only able to post a portion of it (and it’s a pretty long piece), but here’s the crux:

These regions were settled disproportionately by Scots-Irish immigrants who pushed into the hill country to the west in part because that’s where the affordable land was but also because they wanted to get away from the more stratified and inegalitarian society of the east which was built by English settlers and their African slaves. Crucially, slavery never really took root in these areas. And this is why during the Civil War, Unionism (as in support for the federal union and opposition to the treason of secession) ran strong through the Appalachian upcountry, even into Deep South states like Alabama and Mississippi.

As I alluded to earlier, this was the origin of West Virginia, which was originally the westernmost part of Virginia. The anti-slavery, anti-slaveholding upcountry seceded from Virginia to remain in the Union after Virginia seceded from the Union. Each of these regions was fiercely anti-Slavery. And most ended up raising regiments that fought in the Union Army. But they were as anti-slave as they were anti-slavery, both of which they viewed as the linchpins of the aristocratic and inegalitarian society they loathed. It was a society that was both more violent and more self-reliant.

This is history. But it shapes the region. It’s overwhelmingly white, economically underdeveloped (another legacy of the pre-civil war pattern) and arguably because of that underdevelopment has very low education rates and disproportionately old populations.

This map has been floating around the lefty-end of the blog world, giving a pre-West Virginia breakdown of counties where Hillary has beaten Obama by over 65% of the vote. Other than her strongholds in Hispanic-dominated areas and her well known popularity in upstate New York, the map almost geographically matches the spine of the Appalachian mountains:


That’s probably as good a guess as any for whats going on, or at the very least a step up from the hallowed argument: ‘They’re Slackjawed Klansmen vs. Obama Doesn’t Understand The Tender Sensibilities of Jug Band Aficionados.’

RSS icon Comments


Hillary's natural support base sort of looks like a bad rash.

Posted by Zander | May 14, 2008 12:41 PM

For whatever reason, there are, essentially, no black people in West Virginia. There. Mystery solved.

Oh, and did I mention the historic, constant and ongoing neglect and abuse of the people of this state? These people are intentionally kept exactly how mine owners and other corporations want them. You want smart, non-racist voters? Then you go in and educate and diversify them. Don't want to? Don't expect change.

This isn't hard to understand.

Posted by whatevernevermind | May 14, 2008 12:43 PM

There's lots of interesting Senators to talk about besides Hillary Clinton, you know.

Posted by elenchos | May 14, 2008 12:47 PM

That trend does NOT follow the Appalachian Mtn.'s.

Not unless Texas in now in Appalachia, as is Mississippi AND Georgia and South Carolina all of a sudden isn't part of it.

It would be better to say that most of her support comes from people who speak with a southern drawl.

Don't be a dolt.

Posted by ecce homo | May 14, 2008 12:49 PM


I keep trying to pitch a series on Idaho's own Senator Mike Crapo, or Georgian sensation Senator Johnny Isakson. Neither seem to whet editorial interest.

Posted by R. Jackson, Campaign Oversaturation Intern | May 14, 2008 12:54 PM

That's a pretty good graphic. It could be made a bit better by encoding her percent of the vote as the color saturation, instead of just picking a threshold value. Edward Tuffte would love it.

Posted by David Wright | May 14, 2008 1:00 PM

@4 is right. What do all these places have in common: TN, AR, Upstate NY, Western PA, Northern MI, Southeastern OH, South TX.

The purple areas indicate those areas that fit two criteria: 1) no black people and 2) relatively poor.

Posted by F | May 14, 2008 1:16 PM

Yeah, good pic. Though it's potentially misleading, IMHO, to include in there the results of a state in which Hillary's most notable opponent was "Uncommitted".

Posted by tsm | May 14, 2008 1:17 PM

@4 It's pretty much the appalachians plus the ozarks, which are pretty simmilar geographically. T

Posted by jonglix | May 14, 2008 1:19 PM

To @4: Exactly what @9 just said, and don't forget -- she spent almost two decades in Arkansas, w/ much of that time as its first lady. Some lingering good will there in that state and its immediate surroundings (northeast Texas, southern Missouri, west Tennessee) makes perfect sense.

Posted by Greg G. | May 14, 2008 1:28 PM

@9 actually it is the interior highlands which is comprised of the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. and how are similar besides what 7 already pointed out.

Posted by mickey in AR | May 14, 2008 1:39 PM

It should be noted, in the interests of fairness, that Obama didn't probably win the "rural white voters" in Nebraska. Nebraska is made up of two halves, the east which has Omaha and Lincoln (overwhelmingly for Obama) and the west which has "rural white voters." In the caucus Obama won the east BIG but barely won the west. Last night he won the east healthily, but probably lost in the west given what the early, rural returns looked like. Just saying, even here in Nebraska, the rural whites aren't jumping on the bandwagon. Thank god I live in Lincoln.

Posted by Ed | May 14, 2008 5:18 PM

Read "Sundown Towns" by James Loewen and you'll get the picture. Josh Marshall summarizes a lot of it--the Ozarks and Appalachia were major areas where sundown policies were in effect and African Americans were deliberately expelled. Towns like that were rare in the South (Mississippi), but common elsewhere--particularly the areas that are now Hillary country.

Posted by Cascadian | May 14, 2008 6:20 PM

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